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Sun 25 October 2020
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Nafeez Ahmed digs deeper into the censorship of an article he wrote, attacking those on the left who are boycotting the largest campaign to get Muslims out to vote in next month’s Presidential Election

I am British-born and bred and I am proud of it. But I’m also ethnically Bangladeshi, and Muslim. And I’m worried about my future in this country and the future of my children, who are growing up in a world where ethno-nationalist xenophobia and anti-Muslim hatred is becoming a normal part of our societies.

There are some who like to deny the realities of racism. They imply that brown people like me are merely being hysterical, promoting a left-wing ideology based on identity politics. But those who dismiss such concerns are essentially dismissing the concerns of the vast majority of black and ethnic minority people.

The rise in xenophobia has directly impacted me, my family and my friends who are people of colour or Muslim, and US President Donald Trump’s administration, with its direct ties to white supremacists and anti-Muslim bigots on both sides of the Atlantic, has been at the locus point of this phenomenon.

A Trump second term would grant continued impunity to this far-right nexus – and not just in America. Over the past four years, the President’s reign has already emboldened white nationalists all over the world and fuelled the mainstreaming of racism and anti-Muslim bigotry in the UK.

But Trump has no intention of leaving the White House and, to get his way, he is willing to fundamentally – if not permanently – damage the checks and balances that make fair and free elections in the US possible.

He has refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power after next month’s Presidential Election, claiming that his rival, Joe Biden, might “rig” postal ballots. He is rapidly moving to consolidate control over the Supreme Court with his nomination of federal appeals court judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He has said that his core strategy would be to take disputed election results to that very court.

All of this suggests that Trump already anticipates losing the Presidential Election. 

As former Florida Supreme Court chief justice Charles Well wrote in an urgent letter to his friends and family: “The only way that I can see that this threat can be eliminated is to vote for Biden. It will not be enough to just not vote for Trump. Any basis for a contested election can only really be eliminated by the election not being close.”

In other words, the only way to remove Trump from office is to widen the margin of victory to such a degree that contesting the results becomes so transparently implausible as to be politically impossible.


Censorship

Last month, I urged American Muslims, minorities and progressives to unite on a platform of unity to maximise the chances of removing Trump from office because the data shows that it is on the margins in swing states that elections are made. 

I criticised those on the left who are boycotting the largest campaign to get Muslims out to vote for Biden run by the organisation EMGAGE – and, ironically, doing so in the name of the Palestinian cause.

I wrote an article for the Middle East Monitor (MEMO) – only to find that, after being live for little longer than a day, it had been removed. I was shocked, but I’m no stranger to censorship. At the Guardian, my Earth Insight blog was terminated without notice because I wrote about the role of Gaza’s natural gas resources in motivating Israel’s military intervention during the summer of 2014.  

Another time, after reporting on the Turkish Government’s connections with Islamist terrorists, including ISIS, my work was listed in a 10-page Turkish court order sent to US technology and social media firms on behalf of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The order demanded censorship of the posts and items identified because they comprised “a criminal offence against the President of the country”. 

Muslims, minorities and progressives cannot afford disunity in the run-up to the Presidential Election… it does nothing except play into the hands of Donald Trump.

Ibrahim Hewitt, the editor who had commissioned my Middle East Monitor article, said: “A number of complaints have been received by MEMO from the United States regarding the accuracy of your article, too many for us to ignore. As such, the decision has been taken to remove the article from the website. If the situation changes, I will let you know. As it stands, however, we will not continue to publish it.”

I asked Hewitt to explain which complaints and inaccuracies had led to the entire article being removed, but he did not respond. He also refused to talk on the phone.

I decided to look into it more deeply. One thing which is remarkable is the foreign interests connected to those calling for a boycott of EMGAGE. 


‘A Betrayal of Palestine’

Muslims, minorities and progressives cannot afford disunity in the run-up to the Presidential Election. In-fighting, finger-pointing, backstabbing, however justified it might seem, does nothing except play into the hands of Donald Trump.

It is the failure to grasp and act on this strategic fact that explains why the left has become an increasingly hot mess over the past decade, losing its ability to influence public discourse and action in a way that fends off the far-right and meaningfully impacts public policy. 

That is how Trump won by razor-thin margins in 2016. Just 107,000 votes across those three swing states effectively decided the election – because registered Democrat voters simply didn’t turn out to vote. That means, if a million American Muslims really come out in force on 3 November, this could genuinely swing the elections and the fate of American democracy.

Voters need to realise that Trump doesn’t want minorities to vote. In 2016, this was achieved by attempting to deter 3.5 million Black Americans through Facebook microtargeting by the now defunct, scandal-hit firm Cambridge Analytica. This strategy focused on progressive discourses and weaponised them against the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, in order to discredit her from within a progressive frame.

In my now censored article, I pointed out that Trump is actively attempting to turn the Arab vote to his advantage. In August, John Akouri – who chairs the Lebanese American Chamber of Commerce – was appointed Co-Chair of the Trump-Pence Presidential Campaign in Michigan as part of a grand strategy to divide the Arab vote. Akouri has played this role supporting Republican candidates many times before to great effect. In 2016, it was Akouri who helped ensure that Trump won the state of Michigan by fewer than 11,000 votes.

Now he is set to play the same role again. Since his appointment, Akouri has met personally with both Trump and Mike Pence, as well as Republican Party chairwoman Ronna McDaniel; Donald Trump Jnr of the Trump Organisation; and Lara Lea Trump, Trump’s daughter-in-law and campaign advisor, among many other top Trump officials and advisors.

I also warned that Trump has another ace up his sleeve: an unwitting and unlikely ally in the form of parts of America’s major progressive Arab and Muslim movements. 

Since early September, some of those movements have engaged in a series of accelerating attacks against EMGAGE; attacks that could end up gifting Trump an election-deciding victory in Michigan, as well as other important swing states.

EMGAGE is the largest American Muslim Political Action Committee (PAC) and is leading the largest mass campaign to mobilise a million American Muslims to vote against Trump in the forthcoming election, with grassroots efforts focusing on Michigan, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Georgia, New York, Illinois, Texas, and California. Partners in the campaign include a coalition of many other American Muslim groups such as MPower Change, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), the Council on American Islamic Relations, and the US Council of Muslim Organisations.

But if American Muslim voters are led to believe that working with EMGAGE is equivalent to betraying the Palestinian cause, it would not be surprising if their disillusion leads them not to vote at all on 3 November.

Curiously, the anti-EMGAGE campaign began with Professor Sami al-Arian, currently exiled in Turkey after enduring a decade-long process of persecution under what many civil rights groups considered to be spurious terrorism charges. On 20 August, in a video released by the Council of American-Islamic Relations in Florida, al-Arian complained about EMGAGE: “We need to expose those people inside us trying to take credit for something they do not deserve. I have seen some of these people today, they’re trying to promote Biden and to speak on behalf of the Muslim community, particularly an organisation like EMGAGE… which they try to dance with Zionists and try to infiltrate our community and claim they are going to bring a million votes.”

In this video, al-Arian effectively did Akouri’s job for him, by appearing to explicitly oppose the idea of bringing American Muslims out to vote for Biden and offering no meaningful alternative as to how to prevent a Trump second term. 

This may not ultimately be surprising. Before he fell out of favour with US authorities, al-Arian switched from working with the Democrats to becoming much more like Akouri. Al-Arian played a key role in helping George W Bush win the state of Florida by mobilising Muslim voters on behalf of the Republican Party at mosques and Muslim cultural centres. He would later boast of how the Muslim vote was responsible for Bush’s victory in Florida by very tight margins: “We certainly delivered him many more than 537 votes.” 

Al-Arian would go on to join the Bush administration’s American Muslim Council, and participated in meetings at the White House with Bush advisor Karl Rove. His flirtations with Republican officials continued both during and after the elections, including close contact with Republican power broker Grover Norquist, who has seen a resurgence of his influence under Trump.

Today, al-Arian is in exile in Turkey under the protection of President Erdogan. He heads up his own Center for Islam and Global Affairs at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University. As the Turkey scholars Sinem Adar and Halil Yenigun wrote in Jadaliyya, granting al-Arian a safe haven in Turkey was a “strategic decision” of the ruling AKP Party, to create “a hub for pro-Erdoğan Muslim intellectuals worldwide”.

It so happens that since this summer, Trump and Erdogan have rekindled their rocky relationship, to the point that Trump now proudly boasts that Erdogan “will only listen to him”. It has even recast US foreign policy in Syria, leading America to green-light a Turkish incursion into northern Syria.

Around the same week that the Council of American-Islamic Relations in Florida released its video containing al-Arian’s attack on EMGAGE, Erdogan received a delegation from the US Council of Muslim Organisations (USCMO) – of which EMGAGE is a member. The national policy director of NGO American Muslims for Palestine, which later put out a call “prohibiting” Muslims from working with EMGAGE, was also part of this delegation. A USCMO press release about the delegation described “the need to nurture the amity between the two NATO countries and freedom-loving peoples”.

Why does USCMO believe that it should be taking the pro-Erdogan position of advocating closer military-security relations between the US and Turkey?

Al-Arian’s urging of American Muslims to boycott EMGAGE was followed by a series of stories by Electronic Intifadaarguing that various members of EMGAGE’s leadership had engaged previously with Jewish groups with close ties to Israel. American Muslim support for EMGAGE’s election campaigning was thus equated with a betrayal of Palestine.


Unite and Turn Out to Vote

But is it really the EMGAGE campaign that represents the fundamental existential threat to Palestinians at this time? While Biden’s approach to the Palestinian question may well be disappointingly tepid in many respects, it is still far ahead of Trump’s and superior to any previous Democratic Party policy on Israel-Palestine.

Bernie Sanders’ Jewish outreach director, Joel Rubin, has described Biden’s Middle East platform as “the most realistic and most progressive of its kind” among Democrats, for the first time encompassing explicit opposition to settlements, condemnation of unilateral annexation, unequivocal support for a “viable” Palestinian state, and even protecting free speech that is critical of Israel, including around the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

In contrast, Middle East experts recognise widely that Trump’s ‘peace plan’ is on track to destroy any chance of a viable independent Palestinian state. Progressive American Jewish communities see the plan as a rubber stamp for “permanent occupation”. Even Alon Liel, Israel’s former Ambassador to South Africa and ex-head of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, says that the Trump plan “looks a lot like apartheid”.

By seeking to neuter the most prominent American Muslim voter initiative in history at this crucial time, these progressive groups are on track to make the Trump vision to end Palestine a horrifying reality – endangering the very issue they champion.

In the name of the Palestinian cause, I warned in my MEMO piece, they are unwittingly encouraging Arab and Muslim minority voters to disengage from the electoral process. This would guarantee a Trump victory.

But upon MEMO’s publication of my article raising these issues, Sami al-Arian’s son-in-law, academic Jonathan AC Brown, publicly attacked the article on Twitter. Within hours of his criticisms, MEMO removed the article. Brown has denied that he had anything to do with this.

In email correspondence about the deletion, Ibrahim Hewitt told me that the editorial decision to pull the piece was not in his hands, but taken by “the people responsible for editorial decisions”. He didn’t identify who they were and admitted not having any idea about any of the alleged inaccuracies.

Instead, he put me in touch with Dr Daud Abdullah, MEMO’s director, who repeated Brown’s public complaint that I had described al-Arian as a “Republican operative” for working with Bush in 2000 (I noted that MEMO could have easily solved this alleged inaccuracy by simply removing that descriptor and keeping the remaining facts).

Abdullah refused to disclose who had issued the complaints about the piece: “With regard to our sources, we are under no obligation to reveal them or their number.” He also declined to reveal MEMO’s funding sources, admitting only that the platform “is privately funded”. 

I decided to comb through MEMO’s previous articles mentioning ‘Erdogan’ and ‘Turkey’. I couldn’t find a single piece of critical reporting about the Turkish President. Every article mentioning Turkey takes on a rather slavish tone. 

The fact that MEMO found my article so threatening that it decided to unilaterally delete it raises urgent questions. To what extent are foreign interests, interests like Erdogan’s, seeking to interfere in the US Presidential Election – using American Arab and Muslim progressive movements as a proxy for this interference? To what extent are some of these progressive forces allowing themselves to become unwitting enablers of Trump?

We are at one of the most pivotal points in American and global political history. A Trump second term would reinforce the dangerous normalisation of white supremacism; embolden the crushing of Muslim, black and ethnic minority rights; accelerate the unconstitutional erosion of checks and balances in US democracy; and intensify the lurch toward dangerous climate change, while all but throwing a Palestinian state into the sea.

The Democratic Party is far from an ideal alternative to the age of Trump, but it is only by removing Trump from office that there can be any hope of beginning the urgently needed process of repairing America’s broken democracy. Americans can still snatch the White House out of Trump’s hands, but to do so Arab, Muslim, minority and progressive leaders in the US need to take stock of what is at stake, and stop taking chunks out of each other. We have legitimate and fundamental disagreements, but cannibalising each other exactly when all such movements campaigning to get minorities and Muslims out to vote need their full strength is a recipe for strategic failure. 

The urgent focus is simple: get everybody out to vote to prevent Donald Trump from stealing the 2020 Presidential Election.


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